Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative brain disorder of unknown aetiology that results in memory impairment, increased difficulty in performing day-to-day tasks, and behavioural and psychological changes. As the disease progresses sufferers tend to become increasingly confused, irritable, and reliant on others for their personal care.
Dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease comprises approximately 70 per cent of cases, is the second leading underlying cause of death in Australia. It is estimated to affect more than 420 000 Australians, with 250 people diagnosed with it every day. The average life expectancy after symptoms begin is eight years, with sufferers usually succumbing to complications of advanced debilitation, such as infection and malnutrition.
Multiple treatment modalities have been tried for Alzheimer’s disease including antioxidant therapy, dietary supplementation, hormone replacement, and cognitive rehabilitation, none of which have been proven to delay the eventual progression of the disease.
Many specialists recommend an initial trial of cholinesterase inhibitor medication for newly diagnosed patients. This class of drug reduces breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine thereby partly compensating for the loss of cholinergic neurons in the brain. They do not, however, appear to affect the progression of disability and they can be associated with side effects including nausea, diarrhoea, weight loss, fainting and poor sleep.
One relatively new potential avenue of treatment that appears to be free of side effects is controlled exposure to red and infrared light.
Red light (625 to 740 nm wavelength), and infrared light (>750 nm wavelength), has been shown to penetrate human skin to a significantly deeper depth than other light spectrums.
It has been known for some time that controlled exposure to red and near-infrared light can improve wound healing and reduce inflammation through a process known as photobiomodulation – the term for light’s ability to modulate key biological processes at a cellular or genetic level. Over the past decade studies have shown it may also decrease and possibly even reverse the level of damage in animal models for Alzheimer’s disease.
Amyloid deposits (an abnormal accumulation of proteins) in the brain is one of the major hypotheses of the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Exposure to infrared light has been shown to decrease amyloid deposits in human neuroblastoma cells.
In 2017 a study was undertaken in which five patients with mild to moderate dementia were exposed to 12 weeks of daily transcranial infrared light therapy. They showed a significant improvement in Standardised Mini-Mental State Examination and Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale tests at the end of the 12 weeks. Of note, there was also increased functionality, better sleep, less anxiety and wandering in the trial participants. No adverse side effects were noted in the participants.
A follow-up study in 2019 randomly assigned eight patients with dementia to either 12 weeks or thrice weekly home exposure to near infrared light via a Vielight Neuro Gamma device or 12 weeks of usual home care. The four patients that received near infrared light therapy treatment displayed significant improvements at the end of 12 weeks in the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive Subscale testing, Neuro Psychiatry Inventory testing and increased cerebral perfusion on MRI compared to the four patients that didn’t. Once again, no adverse side effects were noted in participants.
Currently there is a larger, randomised human trial being undertaken to see if exposure to infrared light therapy can help treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, it is at the moment suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The earlier studies showed significant improvements in cognition, backed up by brain imaging,” Dr Lew Lim, founder and CEO of Vielight, the principal sponsor of the trial, told me. “We recognise that observed improvements could be due to placebo or other factors, so we need to validate our hypothesis through a much larger, well-controlled trial, which is what we are doing now.”
In the meantime, many people are trying infrared light therapy for their dementia. Founder and managing director of Australian company Pulse Laser Relief Stuart McComb says he has received enthusiastic feedback from people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease after commencing red and infrared light treatments at home.
“Families and carers have told us they have observed positive changes including less anxiety, improved mood and better cognitive awareness,” McComb said. “While we know it doesn’t deliver the same results for everyone, these improvements are promising.”
Finnish dental student Vladimir Heiskanen has collated an extensive list of trials carried out on the therapeutic effects of red and near-infrared light on his website www.valtsus.blogspot.com. His database lists over 3800 scientific articles which includes over 1100 animal studies, 500 randomised studies and 140 randomised and controlled trials in humans.
Heiskanen’s site documents over 58 conditions on which studies of red and near infrared light therapy have been conducted on humans. At least moderate evidence of benefit of therapy has been found for hair loss, chronic low back pain, knee joint osteoarthritis, oral mucositis, post exercise recovery, and neck pain. In addition, some evidence of benefit of therapy has been found for diabetic foot ulcers, dental pain, exercise performance, breast cancer lymphoedema, and acute pain.
Dr Daniel Johnstone, 38, medical scientist and lecturer at the University of Sydney’s medical research centre the Bosch Institute, has been involved in a number of animal experiments on the use of photobiomodulation for Alzheimer’s disease.
“If you can get the correct wavelength and intensity of light to vulnerable cells then you can afford them some level of protection against degeneration,” he told me. “Red light is a mild stress which can stimulate cells to up-regulate their in-built defence systems to protect themselves against more severe subsequent insults.”
His supervisor at the Bosch Institute, executive director Professor Jonathan Stone, says that there is growing evidence that photobiomodulation can potentially help in the cognitive aspects of Alzheimer’s disease.
“When red light is directed at the brain, it impacts both the nerve cells and the blood vessels,” said Stone.
Dr Ann Liebert, director of photomolecular research at the Australasian Research Institute and vice president of the Australian Medical Photobiomodulation Association, began to administer laser to some of her post-operative patients who displayed cognitive decline. Encouragingly, four out of five of her patients who have Alzheimer’s disease have experienced benefits.
“You have to look at the unexpected things that come to you in your experience,” Liebert told me.”
Gregory Bennett is a geriatrician who consults at the Sydney Adventist Hospital. He has been administering laser to some of his dementia patients since 2015 and has noticed positive results.
“There seems to be general improvement in their engagement in life,” he told me. “They seem happier and more energetic and show more initiative in doing little chores around the house.”
Surfers Health Medical Centre Practice Principal Dr Mark Jeffery has more than 30 years’ experience as a doctor, and believes that the available research supports the use of light therapy for a wide range of diseases. “The reality is there are no real side effects from red light therapy and it’s one of the safest treatments you can do,” he said.
He recommends trialling red and infrared light therapy to some of his patients with mild to moderate dementia. One of them was Miriam Taylor*, 69, who, with the encouragement of her partner Allen Wilson*, commenced infrared light therapy when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago, after having previously unsuccessfully tried other unconventional measures including hyperbaric oxygen therapy, heavy metal chelation and having her amalgam tooth fillings removed.
Her treatment is delivered via a mobile infrared light device produced and marketed by Vielight, a company based in Canada. This device delivers 810 nm wavelength infrared light for 20 minutes per treatment session, six days a week.
I visited Taylor and Wilson at their Surfers Paradise high-rise after having spoken to them on the phone.
“The light therapy is definitely helping me,” Taylor said. “I have more moments where it feels like everything has come good again and I remember things,” she said. “My writing and piano playing have both improved and I am less anxious and confused when we go shopping.”
Wilson agreed. “The light is stalling her decline and giving her confidence. Both her short-term memory and confusion have improved.”
He smiled at Taylor. “It’s still a bloody hard slog,” he said. “But together we get through it.”
*Names have been
changed to protect privacy
TIPS FOR DELAYING AGE-RELATED DEMENTIA BY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE BOSCH INSTITUTE PROFESSOR JONATHAN STONE
- Keep blood pressure under control
- Keep cholesterol down to prevent atherosclerosis
- Eat a vegetable-rich diet
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Daily exercise
- If you have diabetes, keep it under control
- Use such alternative treatments like red-light therapy as an adjunction to your doctor’s treatment, not instead of it
- September is World Alzheimer’s Month, an international campaign to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding dementia.
- Dementia Australia will hold its annual Dementia Action Week from 21-27 September.
Suvi Mahonen is a Surfers Paradise-based journalist. Her work appears in The Australian, the Australian Quarterly, Mamamia and other health and lifestyle publications. Follow her on Facebook, YouTube and online art-selling platform Redbubble.
Feature photo credit: Sabine Van Erp